Modernist middle man
Writing about Germany in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Reyner Banham stated that 'the atmosphere of 1927 is best given by a book title that could hardly have been imagined a year earlier'. This was Walter Curt Behrendt's The Victory of the New Building Style, which has just been republished in a new translation. It is accompanied by a substantial introduction, rather longer than the actual text, by Detlef Mertins, associate professor of architecture at the University of Toronto.
Behrendt (1884-1945) was born in Metz within two years of Gropius, Mies and Le Corbusier, and initially studied to be an architect.He started writing architectural criticism in 1907, and during the next four years published over 50 articles and reviews while completing his dissertation on 'The Street Wall As Unified Spatial Element in City Building: A Contribution to Contemporary Urban Design'.
Critical of his own design abilities, he resolved not to practise but to become a civil servant, and as his friend, the American historian Lewis Mumford, recalled, 'courageously decided to devote himself to the administrative problems connected with architecture'. He was to prove very influential, and by 1927 had become architectural adviser to the Prussian Minister of Finance, who reviewed all public building projects.
As a non-practising Jew, however, his position was insecure.He was discharged in 1933 and with Mumford's help emigrated to the US the following year.He continued to write, and his Modern Building (1936) became a standard textbook, popular and enduring enough to be republished in the 1970s. He ended up a respected teacher of urban planning at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, but his relatively early death is part of the reason why he has slipped into comparative obscurity.
Does Behrendt deserve renewed interest?
Mertins writes in his introduction that The Victory of the New Building Style 'provokes a reconsideration of German functionalism as neither a monolithic nor a determinist ideology but rather a multifaceted quest for self-determination', and argues that the competing theoretical perspectives in Germany at this time have long been misunderstood, both here and in the US.He seeks to place Behrendt as a middle man, who could draw together aspects of the formalism of Behrens and the functionalism of Van de Velde, and who identified an emerging modern industrial vernacular as an organic cultural form.
As editor of Die Form in 1925, Behrendt had published an essay by Hugo Haring which explored the struggle between objective functional demands and spiritual ones, in determining the form of objects.
Haring's organicism has been a key point for revisionist and pluralist assessments of Modernism.How the conflicting polemics interrelate is part of our increasingly sophisticated understanding of twentieth century architecture and theory, and Behrendt had a significant role in the debate.
In addition Behrendt's career offers insights into the relationship between German and American architectural theory at a crucial moment (he first wrote on Frank Lloyd Wright in 1913, visited the US in 1925, and was influenced by Mumford).
He was also read in Britain and his interest in Patrick Geddes links him to Garden City thinking.
With Behrendt's early work on Alfred Messel (1911) recently republished in Germany, it seems likely that further studies will follow. This translation is both subtle and sympathetic to the original nuances. Mertins' text is a dense and heavily theoretical study, but it provides an invaluable commentary on fascinating cross currents of ideas.
Catherine Croft is an architectural historian